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Physicist imprisoned in Iran is granted medical furlough after surgery

25 May 2016
Omid Kokabee has suffered from kidney cancer and other ailments since his 2011 detainment.

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Omid Kokabee, the University of Texas at Austin physics graduate student imprisoned in Iran for refusing to participate in military research, was granted a medical furlough on 25 May following surgery last month to remove a kidney. The Iranian government permitted the furlough, which is likely to last about one to three months, after bail was posted for 5 billion rials (roughly $165,000). The furlough allows the 33-year-old, who has served about half of a 10-year sentence, to at least temporarily avoid a return to Evin Prison, where family, friends, and human rights organizations fear Kokabee’s health would further deteriorate.

“This is what the authorities in Iran do when they don’t want to just pardon or reverse someone’s sentence or just appear to be caving to pressure,” says Iran specialist Elise Auerbach of Amnesty International USA. She says that some, but certainly not all, prisoners granted medical furlough end up getting released.

Kokabee is currently home with his family in Iran following an extended stay at Tehran’s Sina Hospital, where doctors removed his right kidney on 20 April. After suffering from kidney, stomach, heart, and tooth ailments, Kokabee finally managed to get a sonogram last November. That test, along with an MRI conducted on 16 April, revealed a cancerous tumor.

Omid Kokabee recovers in Sina Hospital in Tehran, Iran, after kidney surgery last month.

Omid Kokabee recovers in Sina Hospital in Tehran, Iran, after kidney surgery last month.

“All of his health problems, we believe, are the result of his incarceration and lack of treatment during the five years,” says Hadi Ghaemi, an Iranian-born physicist who cofounded the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI). The New York–based advocacy group has provided updates on Kokabee since his arrest (see Physics Today Online, 26 November 2014). Following his surgery, Amnesty International, ICHRI, and other organizations renewed calls to secure his release.

Kokabee was detained on 30 January 2011 at Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport as he prepared to return to the US after visiting his family. Following a 15-month pretrial detention that included at least 36 days of solitary confinement, an Iranian court sentenced Kokabee to 10 years in prison.

Officially, Kokabee was convicted for cooperating with hostile governments. But letters and documents obtained by Nature in 2013 reveal that Kokabee had been pressured before and after his detention to perform nuclear research for Iran’s military. Although Kokabee limited his research on lasers to basic science, his expertise could potentially aid in applications that include uranium enrichment.

Kokabee’s release appeared imminent in late 2014, when Iran’s Supreme Court delivered a point-by-point refutation of all charges (see Physics Today, December 2014, page 30). Yet the Tehran Appeals Court, in what Ghaemi calls an unprecedented action, ignored the higher court and upheld the decade-long sentence. “Certain parts of Iran’s judiciary are beholden to security forces,” he says.

Dozens of Nobel laureates, plus scientific organizations that include the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Physical Society, have called for Kokabee’s release. Both AAAS and APS have awarded prizes to Kokabee for his courage.

The recent news of Kokabee’s dire health has sparked a renewed burst of activism on his behalf. On 21 April #FreeOmid was one of the top trending hashtags on Twitter internationally. Navid Yaghmazadeh, an Iranian computer science doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin, organized a 27 April rally to raise campus awareness. A day earlier, the school’s leadership made its first public statement on the case with a letter to Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations calling for Kokabee’s release.

It’s unclear whether increasing international awareness of Kokabee’s plight played a role in the furlough decision, but it couldn’t have hurt. “The more media attention, the more protection [the Iranians] offer in prison, even if it doesn’t lead to earlier release,” Ghaemi says. He hopes for an outcome similar to that of Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer who was released three years into a six-year sentence in 2013 after widespread international condemnation.

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